The future of the forums: learning from the United States Social Forum process

By Marc Becker, et al.
July 1, 2010

Following what is now an established tradition at social forums, the second United States Social Forum (USSF) in Detroit in June 2010 included two workshops on the future of the social forums process. The purpose of these discussions was to help define where the social forum process is headed and to assess its progress and course. Over the course of two days, participants examined the social forum process from a global perspective, and looked at how to root the USSF in the everyday practices of people—especially the poor and most marginalized groups.

The purpose was to engage workshop participants in a critical discussion of social forum methodology in general, and specifically of the manner in which it is being applied to the USSF, and the extent to which it can impact the everyday practices of grassroots movements. In addition to the more academic presentations, several social forum organizers and activists also participated. Both sessions were well attended and generated animated and lengthy dialogues. Participants noted the need for such discussions, and called for more such workshops at future forums.

Debates at the workshops were centered on one of the major goals of the social forum methodology, that is to develop methodologies of mobilization and deliberation that are purposely aimed at building bridges between different identity-based groups. The challenge is to bridge local, national, and global scales in ways that help “translate” issues into common agendas while respecting the cultural and political particularities of different locales and groups.

A major theme that dominated the discussions was local organizing and cultural and class diversity, both as assets and challenge to the social forum process. Despite being focused on one of the central questions that has been occupying the minds of participants and researchers of the social forum process since its beginning, this workshop approached it from a novel angle: that of the relationship, in the words of Will Copeland from the Detroit Local Organizing Committee, between the “intuitive, non-linear” everyday form of functioning of grassroots, local-level mobilization and the more “linear” and “intellectual” form of action that characterizes extra-local processes of activist networking.

Panelists were asked to reflect on how the World Social Forum process informs and influences organizing in the United States context as well as speculate on the future of the WSF process and strategies that can make it more effective at fostering social change.

WSF founder Chico Whitaker responded that Detroit has a similar ambience as Porto Alegre had at the first forum in 2001. He observed a feeling that we were small in number, but high in energy and vibrancy. People began to organize both in Brazil and the United States without a clear idea about what they would find. Porto Alegre realized success, and from Brazil it spread out into multiple forums throughout world. It was not easy for organizers to let the World Social Forum (WSF) leave Brazil for India in 2004, but in doing so organizers began to understand what they had invented. Now, ten years later, we realize that we could not have anticipated this success. We began with one event, and instead we launched a process. The challenge was to create spaces, to create a new culture and cultivate the connections and relationships that must be the foundation of the new world the WSF envisions.

In examining the future of the forum process (as opposed to just the forum itself), Whitaker pointed to three key issues:

1. The development of new politics and a new political culture. We need a new way to pull people together, and a new way of doing politics. A threat always exists that old ways of doing politics will restrain and disrupt us. To avoid this problem, we need to change minds and processes.
2. The proposal of the forum was to give political power to civil society, not governments. In the process, we need to learn and build together.
3. A third issue is the level of content. We need to think about what is happening in the world, what we need to change and how. This is changing, and we are facing new challenges, but how to do this is emerging more clearly.

Michael Hardt picked up on two themes in Whitaker’s presentation. First, he urged a rethinking of the forum as a subject vs. seeing it as an open space. Originally participants saw it more as open space, but this debate looks different in the United States. At the 2009 WSF in Belem, those who wished to see the forum as a subject wanted to interact with leftist presidents. This raises the whole issue of relations between social movements and electoral politics. A second question is that of the politics of the common, not only of the earth and its ecosystem but also human creativity including intellectual production. How do we structure and manage the common? Hardt urged seeing administration of the common as neither an issue of private nor public property, but rather democratic self management. We need an alternative forum of the political subject in which we see the forum as an issue of governance rather than global government in terms of the institution of common, constructed, and institutional concerns. In this way, Hardt put a slightly different twist on the question of the forum as a subject or space.

Scott Byrd, the co-chair of the communications working group at the USSF and a member of Sociologists without Borders (SSF) also addressed the issue of the commons, specifically the issue of bureaucracy and the management of the forum. We need a forum to manage the forum, Byrd argued. We need a certain amount of hierarchical bureaucracy to get stuff done, but we need to look at how we can work toward democratizing this bureaucracy to spread out the power. At the same time, we don’t want the organization to overwhelm the intention of the Forum, which is to create spaces for democratic exchange and relationship-building.

Jackie Smith, delegate to the USSF National Planning Committee from Sociologists without Borders, said that she has learned more by organizing within the USSF and local social forum contexts than by going to World Social Forums, because watching and helping groups implement WSF principles in more localized settings provide insights on how to inspire people at local levels to new ways of thinking. This means engaging new modes of politics to try to translate the ideas of the WSFs, to introduce and adapt models and innovations we have learned through the WSF process. She echoed the idea that we all need to help cultivate “political imagination” among the general population and encourage the expansion of the WSF process in more diverse and localized settings. We need innovation that invite new people into the process. The People Movement Assemblies (PMAs) at the USSF and the “expanded” element of the forums, which use technology to link local communities with the Social Forums in real time, are part of this expanding process to link local issues with global ones.

Byrd also observed that the PMAs helped counteract the problem of the “tyranny of the workshops,” where participants run from one workshop to the next, making it hard to connect with each other. We should also think of the forum as an incubator where we develop new ideas and ways of relating with each other.

Francine Mestrum from Belgium provided a European perspective on the social forum process. She sees it as a space where people who are not in agreement come together to overcome their differences. We agree that capitalism is not sustainable, but we need more of a political engagement to make this a reality. Her point was not to abandon the open space idea, but rather to give it more relevance. Mestrum argued that while it is easy to criticize Europe for its colonial past, especially since the continent is currently experiencing a deep financial and ecological crisis of civilization, it is a mistake to reject modernity in its entirety, particularly ideas like individual rights and emancipation. The WSF should be a place to discuss these issues. The point is not to find convergence, but we need to clear them out. The forum’s greatest achievement is its focus on diversity, and that can help us on the left. This raises two extreme views: should the forum become a new international party, or remain an open space without any structure? The most important issue, she argues, was to preserve a focus on diversity in order to enhance our political relevance.

Smith pointed to the defeat of the WTO in Seattle as the start of the emergence of a new form of movement politics. Globalized capitalism has failed to meet the basic needs of so much of the world, so we need something radically different. The WSF process offers a way to move forward in realizing new modes of organizing our society. She explained how her research on the WSF process has signaled a need for new methods for doing social research. The WSF process generates a sense that we are making the path to another world by walking. What we have is not so much a solution to crises, but rather a guide as to what the next step is. So, the point is not just for scholars and activists to criticize the forum, but to understand our particular roles in finding a path forward. We have to think of ourselves as agents. We cannot stay separate as scholars, but we have to jump in and become involved as actors.

Banishi Albert from the Indigenous Environmental Network (IEN) referred to the role of space and shared histories as both a facilitator and a barrier for bridge building within and between identity-based social movements. In the case of the Native American movement, it became easier to connect to Indigenous communities in Detroit that has a significant urban Native American community and several other Indigenous groups living near the city, than in Atlanta where access to the Native American community was far more difficult due to questions of geographical accessibility.

Michael Leon Guerrero from Grassroots Global Justice noted that “an open space is not necessarily a level-playing field,” and that it is necessary for social forum organizers to create spaces that can facilitate methodological reflections around issues such as cognitive processes, physical space and ethnic, linguistic and gender diversity, in order to develop methodologies that can overcome the barriers inherent to these factors and harness their creative potential.

Jeff Juris from Northeastern University noted that the first USSF in Atlanta involved a process of opening spaces, but he questioned what spaces are closed when others are opened. Did we move too far to the side of intentionality? Were anarchist groups being left out? Can we push back toward more openness, without losing community participation? Can we expand without losing people who need to be at the center? Guerrero responded that intentionality does not make exclusivity, but we want the process to be consolidated enough so that players who need to be at the center were not overrun. We are so far behind we need to make changes quickly, but we also need to be deliberate so that these changes are successful and solid.

Thomas Ponniah, Lecturer on Social Studies at Harvard University and co-editor with William F. Fisher of Another World is Possible, Popular Alternatives to Globalization at the World Social Forum, argued that we need to start organizing with the local and subaltern, but we also need to engage with the national and global. Focusing on the local provides us with a much-needed feeling of agency, but our movements still need to engage with state power. Conservative actors – such as the Tea Party – have challenged political parties at town hall meetings, supported more conservative Republican incumbents, and were crucial in the Massachusetts Senate election in January. Because of this engagement with mainstream politics the conservatives have been better at affecting national social policy than have progressives. He argued that the USSF has to pressure the electoral, political arena in order to stop the right and to push forward a national progressive agenda.

These contrasting interventions demonstrate some of the creative tensions present in the social forum process. While many participants see their work as articulating and advancing new models of politics and new types of social and political relationships, others emphasize the need to build a united effort to resist existing institutions and expand the possibilities to allow alternatives to flourish. The political brilliance and perhaps the source of the social forum’s longevity is, according to Smith, its ability to sustain these contrasting approaches while allowing them to generate new ideas and innovations that contribute to the process of “building a new world within the framework of the existing one.” That most Forum participants are ambivalent about the need to resolve these tensions and remain engaged in the WSF process is what has allowed it to adapt and thrive over the past decade. The unresolved question, of course, is whether this type of politics is enough to re-make the world.

The Network Institute for Global Democratization (NIGD) and Sociologists Without Borders (SSF), in cooperation with Critical Action: Centre in movement (CACIM), based in New Dehli, India, organized these workshops. Participants suggested that the both the WSF International Council (IC) and the USSF National Planning Committee (NPC) include these kinds of workshops as a central component of the social forum methodology, as well as a regular and central feature of future events both at a global and regional level. The purpose is to develop a space of methodological reflection that intentionally develops methodologies aimed at overcoming barriers to diversity and inclusion, but in a manner that, in the words of one of the discussion participants, does not end up creating an overly burdening and restrictive set of rules and procedures that stifles the potential for spontaneity and creativity that is inherent to the Social Forum process.


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